A recent Dateline Australia programme, Last Frontier, addressed some issues of indisputable public interest and concern in both Tasmania and Sarawak.
It examined policies in those countries that will affect the lives of tens of thousands of people and destroy some of the world’s remaining forest ecosystems.
In short Dateline investigated the plans to flood central Sarawak with no less than 12 highly controversial dams that will destroy the rainforest and displace countless indigenous communities.
The show then revealed the links between these plans and the logging in Tasmania by the Sarawak company Ta Ann, which has been causing anger and concern among conservationists.
So, Dateline was clearly fulfilling its investigative current affairs remit with a highly legitimate subject matter.
But the big businesses featured in the show, Ta Ann, which has major logging and plantation concessions in Sarawak, and Hydro-Tasmania, the state-owned Tasmanian company involved in the Sarawak mega-dam projects, didn’t appreciate the scrutiny and complained the programme was slanted against them.
Within hours of the broadcast they first attempted to block the programme being shown in Malaysia, where of course there is straight censorship over anything that might reflect badly on the ruling regime, which is linked to Ta Ann.
However, to begin with the broadcast company SBS did not flinch and the programme duly caused waves amongst Malaysian satellite viewers, who saw scenes for the first time of the floating villages destroyed by the Bakun Dam.
One immediate benefit of this was that within two days the Sarawak Government announced that after ten years of backtracking it will finally pay up more of the promised compensation to the 10,000 refugees whom they moved to the ‘re-settlement zone” of Sungai Asap!
However, the two big companies are clearly not in the mood to cheer this good news for the poor people of Sarawak. They are so angry at being associated with such obvious injustices on Australian TV that they have proved determined to squash the programme, discredit it and prevent anyone from seeing it ever again!
Big business bully boy tactics!
So, the two companies next set about putting their top lawyers to find faults and demand retractions from the show. Given that both Ta Ann and Hydro-Tasmania were both given considerable airtime, featuring interviews with several executives from each company, SBS should have been confident that there was little case to answer.
After all, the report had carefully stuck to the facts, which are that Hydro-Tas has taken on a lucrative and high-profile role in assisting Sarawak’s deeply destructive dam projects and that Ta Ann is meanwhile causing the destruction of large areas of Tasmania’s native forests.
It also drew attention to the noteworthy fact that Ta Ann’s major shareholder and Chairman, Hamed Sepawi (who is the cousin of Sarawak’s Chief Minister) is also the Chairman of Sarawak’s Energy Board, which commissioned Hydro-Tasmania’s role in Sarawak.
Dateline had raised these matters and left the protagonists to argue it out.
But, instead of working through the normal complaints procedures, Hydro-Tasmania’s Chairman David Crean then ‘went to the top’. He wrote a fuming letter to the Chairman of SBS, who clearly knows nothing about the appalling environmental and human rights atrocities in Sarawak or the billionaire status of the country’s corrupted Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud.
What the SBS Chairman DOES know, however, is that Hydro-Tasmania is one of the big advertisers on his channel, which has only just started accepting ads during its long-running, flag-ship current affairs show, Dateline, for which this matter has become a test case!
A bit of background on Crean
We last featured Hydro-Tasmania’s letter-writting Chairman David Crean over his visit earlier this year to Sarawak to meet with the notoriously corrupted Planning Minister Awang Tengah, in order to ‘brief him on the preparations’ for the upcoming annual conference of the International Hydropower Association!
Bear in mind that the essence of David Crean’s complaints to the broadcaster SBS is that Hydro-Tasmania’s role in Sarawak is peripheral and that their show had exaggerated the importance of it.
Yet here he was personally advising Awang Tengah on a crucial image-building exercise for the international stage as Sarawak goes about becoming probably the world’s biggest dam builder over coming years.
Meanwhile, the relevant Hydro-Tasmania subsidiary involved, Entura, has gushed in its own PR about its ‘strengthening ties’ with Sarawak, again displaying the meaty features of Dr Crean as he shakes hands with the corrupted, land-grabbing minister Awang Tengah. Hamed Sepawi smiles on the left hand side of the picture!
Crean’s colleague, Hydro-Tas CEO Roy Adair, has now gone on the airwaves to claim that Sarawak’s membership of this International Hydropower Association (which you or I could join instantly for £3,000) was crucial to establishing the state as an upright, socially and environmentally aware partner that his company could work with.
After all Hydro-Tas likes to describe its benchmark on these matters as the very highest in the world!
Yet we have established that in fact Hydro-Tas started engaging with Sarawak’s dam ventures two years at least BEFORE Hamed’s Sarawak Energy Board signed up to this essentially meaningless association. Astonishingly, within weeks of finally joining the Hydropower Association in 2010, SEB’s over-paid Norwegian energy executive Torstein Dale Sjotviet ($4million a year) was rocketed onto the association’s Board!
Within months after that it was announced that Kuching’s Borneo Conference Centre (constructed and chaired by Taib’s famously corrupted sister Raziah) will be hosting the next international conference!
Nice guidance from David Crean, who is being so kind as to continue briefing Awang Tengah? After all the company’s subsidiary Entura has moved from loss to profit after beginning its association with Sarawak. So the pain of the indigenous peoples and the destruction of swathes of rainforest are doing Hydro-Tasmania no harm at all on the financial front.
So was what was the result of Crean’s angry letter saying that his company and Ta Ann were unfairly misrepresented? Would SBS stand up to this test case against the new power of advertisers over its flagship show?
No! SBS caved in lightening time! Their Chairman clearly demanded immediate action, because within a couple of days the company’s ‘Ombudsman’ issued an apologetic letter to Crean declaring that the show had been biased and unbalanced and had ignored information available about the role of the two companies in Sarawak dam building and in de-forestation!
The ombudsman’s truly waffling retraction made not one mention of any specific example to show that the role between Sarawak Energy and Hydro-Tasmania had been “misreported and misrepresented” or that the show “unduly favoured views critical of Ta Ann (both Ta Ann Tasmania and Ta Ann Holdings Berhad, the Malaysian company)”.
Indeed, given how quickly the apology was written and how extremely short it was, it would seem unlikely that the ombudsman would have had the chance to evaluate any such evidence. Let’s hope they at least managed to squeeze in time to watch the show!
Sarawak Report can guarantee that this ombudsman has not taken the time to read the wealth of evidence available on this website detailing monstrous corruption, human rights abuses and environmental devastation in Sarawak.
They would surely be deeply ashamed to come up with such a ruling had they the faintest idea of such atrocities and abuses.
So, we demand to be told by SBS whether their team of journalists, who had spent weeks investigating the issues behind the report and who had mounds of evidence around the case were fully consulted by their ombudsman or Chairman on this matter before they issued this judgement?
We also demand to know what material the ombudsman considered was available to show that the programme had been unbalanced? After all, Hydro-Tasmania’ own Annual Reports make perfectly plain its subsidiary Entura’s growing and important role in Sarawak.
And Hydro-Tasmania’s own employee is acting on secondment as the “Project Director” in the on-going Murum Damas well as the Senior Project Manager on the up-coming Baram and Baleh Dam projects.
So, we want to know to what extent were the reporter and producers or researchers ever consulted on the actual evidence, before the SBS Chairman and his ombudsman produced their letter caving in to the demands of this advertiser on their channel?
Media watchers in Australia should be scrutinising this test case of a current affairs programme that has decided to take the risk of accepting advertising very carefully indeed!
Hydro-Tas moves to the next stage of bully boy tactics
Having got their climbdown Ta Ann and Hydro-Tasmania have duly started crowing to all and sundry that they have no questions to answer and the programme was ‘wrong’. This is the green light they think they needed to start claiming that the facts in the programme were altogether misrepresented and incorrect!
Likewise, company spokesmen and sympathetic politicians have predictably piled onto the airwaves and media to demand that this ‘biased programme’ be wiped off the face of the earth, removed from the SBS website, banished and labelled as completely untrue!
Given what has happened, it seems likely that SBS will comply and try and expunge all record of the programme, presumably leaving stunned journalists to wonder what happened to their hours of meticulous research, filming and reporting. And also what happened to their once highly-regarded, fearless and award-winning current affairs programme?
Bully boy tactics can dangerously backfire
However, if the business bruisers at Hydro-Tas and Ta Ann think that this sort of heavy-handed intervention still pays dividends, we suspect they should be considering their age for retirement!
Because, as anyone with a PR brain could have warned them, they have resorted to dinosaur tactics in a world now dominated by the internet, blogs and the ‘caring’ corporate image.
Smart companies (outside of Tasmania and Sarawak at least) shy well clear of corporate swagger these days, because thanks to the internet it all gets out and shows them up!
The real players know how it is important to exhibit concern in the face of criticism and accept their duty of accountability whenever their activities impact on people’s lives, like they do in Sarawak (where there has not even been a proper impact assessment produced and published on any of these dams and where the compensation and relocation arrangements have yet to be decided on projects that are already well under way).
Indeed, Sarawak and Tasmania’s PR dinosaurs haven’t even picked up on the oldest lesson in the book. If you pick a fight with your critics all you do is draw more attention to their criticisms!
So what wasn’t true?
Thanks to the PR plodders at Hydro-Tasmania and Ta Ann, Dateline’s Last Frontier has now become “The film they didn’t want the world to see“. Except, of course, the world will want to see it all the more and its there on You Tube and this site!
So what are these issues that have become so sensitive?
Back in 2006 Premier Paul Lennon’s administration in Tasmania welcomed Ta Ann to open two saw mills that would be supplied with wood by the state-owned Forestry Tasmania.
The eager state government even arranged for an $8million public subsidy to help build those mills, presumably arguing that taxpayers would be eventually repaid in profits to the country.
At the time local journalists observed that both mills were located in a politically advantageous way. One was in Paul Lennon’s own constituency and the other in the then Resource Minister, Bryan Green’s constituency (now a prominent political campaigner for Ta Ann in the face of evidence that the company has been lying about the ‘eco-credentials of its wood products).
This prompted suggestions at the time of a pre-election announcement! Indeed, local Examiner reporter Phillipa Duncan recorded the “loose-lipped” remarks by Ta Ann Chairman and major shareholder, Hamed Sepawi in that paper:
“A chatty Hamed Sepawi told the media in Hobart yesterday that people had worked to 3am and 4am the last few nights to finalise arrangements for the mills. Mr Sepawi then observed that one of the planned mills, the Huon Wood Centre, would be built in Franklin, Mr Lennon’s electorate. “So he has a lot of reason to push it,” Mr Sepawi grinned. He next noted that the other mill, the Circular Head Wood Centre at Smithton, would be built in Braddon, the electorate of Resource Minister Bryan Green who is responsible for forestry.
Mr Sepawi next singled out for praise Foresty Tasmania head Evan Rolley, whom he dubbed Captain Evan Rolley for the way he drove his staff to efficiency. “No matter the hour of the night, there was not a time that we could not contact him,” Mr Sepawi said. “Thank you, to make us feel so welcome.” He said that Foresty Tasmania staff had done “a lot of work and forgone a lot of weekends” to clinch the deal”.[Examiner 17th Jan 2006]
‘Captain Evan Rolley’ featured prominently in the Dateline show, because six years on he has now moved jobs to become the Chief Executive for Ta Ann Tasmania!
Furthermore, the former leader of the Green Party, veteran politician Bob Brown, criticised the Ta Ann contract on Dateline, because he said that far from making money for Forestry Tasmania, the contract is losing the state millions, while cutting down wild forests that should be protected:
“Forestry Tasmania is said at the current time to be running at a loss of some millions of dollars, cutting down forests and giving them to corporations like Ta Ann to take the wood products elsewhere and make money. Is that a good deal for Tasmania?” [Bob Brown, Last Frontier]
‘Captain’ Rolley is one person who has nevertheless benefitted very positively in his nice new job. Why should this fact not be pointed out?
Meanwhile, Bryan Green has turned into a roving ambassador for Ta Ann, after the company was exposed for lying about the eco-credentials of its Tasmanian products and claiming they were made of plantation wood to Japanese customers! We would like Green to confirm who paid for these trips?
Under all circumstances, these matters, which were touched on in the film are evidently points of highly legitimate public interest and factual concern at a time when a National Forestry Agreement between the Federal Government and Tasmania has been stalled precisely because politicians, including Bryan Green and David Crean’s own brother the local MP Simon Crean, have been complaining about the exposes about Ta Ann!
Environment campaigners in Australia claim that Ta Ann has able to use its Australian presence to enhance its credentials and to label its wood with certifications that would not be offered to any Sarawak based company. The Ta Ann contract is also wreaking areas of virgin forest in Tasmania. Yet Rolley also had his say on the show:
“Every tree that is being harvested is being replanted and replaced. We’re using a product that is both biodegradable, it’s recyclable and it’s produced sustainably. It’s the one product that stores carbon and storing it as we do in a veneer that then goes into a flooring product is an eco-product – I can’t think of a better one.”
So, we ask why should such matters be suppressed and removed from the public eye? Mr Rolley argued this and other points, enabling viewers to reach their own judgements on Ta Ann’s benefit to Tasmania in terms of a 100 jobs at the cost of millions of dollars and the destruction of wild forests, designated for protection.
Moreover, Dateline’s Last Frontier also introduced many Australians to the realities of Sarawak.
People may well have imagined that this is still a happy rainforest state and few will have never yet heard of Taib Mahmud’s notorious corruption, his land-grabs, his plantation mania, his grasping mega-projects, his plans to flood Sarawak or his blatant carving up of the state into the hands of his own family members.
Therefore, it is surely laudable that the veteran and multiple award-winning reporter, David O’Shea, took the trouble to visit Sarawak before he reflected on these problems for the benefit of Tasmanians, who would not otherwise have understood the significance of Taib’s cousin Hamed Sepawi’s control over Ta Ann Tasmania.
His report revealed that the self-proclaimed eco-company has been involved in a series of land-grab clashes against indigenous communities back home in Sarawak (where its subsidiaries have torn up areas of precious jungle and reduced hundreds of thousands of hectares to oil palm and acacia).
Clearly Hydro-Tasmania wishes for viewers to be kept in the dark about how their formal business partner, Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, runs Sarawak or how he puts his cousin Hamed Sepawi in charge of so many arms of state (like the Sarawak Energy Board) while handing him vast timber and plantation concessions as well as state contracts at the same time.
However, it is equally clear that it is the duty of independent broadcasters to lay such conflicts open.
After all Hydro-Tasmania is a publicly owned company and the taxes of the programme viewers are funding these ventures. Taxes would also have to fund any compensation if the company’s ventures in Sarawak were ever found to have been negligent.
Dateline was therefore plainly performing its duty to inform, when it pointed out that it is Ta Ann’s very Hamed Sepawi, in his guise as Chairman of the Sarawak Electricity Board, who has now employed Hydro-Tasmania to perform several key consulting roles in the construction of Taib’s 12 planned controversial dams.
So at what point in the show was Dateline at fault for ‘exaggerating’ Hydro-Tasmania’s significance in these projects? Surely the question is whether an Australian company should be getting involved at all?
Why should viewers not be entitled to know about these dynamics and be left to consider whether their public company should be involved in such projects?
And what possible justification can there be for suppressing the programme because Hydro-Tasmania believe their involvement is made to look bigger than it is?
Ta Ann Tasmania likewise are determined to distance themselves from the corruption and human rights abuses involving their Chairman and main shareholder in Sarawak?
Yet only this week another of Mr Sepawi’s companies, Perkapalan Damai Timar, has been exposed in Liberia over yet further allegations of corruption, this time by the NGO Global Witness. in their report ‘Liberia Poised to Hand Over Lands to Timber Pirates’.
Surely, Australians should know that the logging company causing such trouble in Tasmania is deeply associated with the ‘Timber Pirates’ of Liberia and the companies who have spent the last 40 years destroying the Jungles of Sarawak?
They are entitled to understand why many believe there is no spoon long enough when it comes to supping with Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and his stooge cousin Hamed Sepawi of Sarawak?!